Mar 22, 2016

Flying unfriendly skies

Before I started my current job, my fear of flying was largely based on the fact that I’m putting my fate entirely in someone else’s hands with every flight.  The more I fly, however, the reasons I dread air travel have become more about the many customer service catastrophes that can befall you at any given moment. 

Recently, I had one of those days where I felt the full force of the domino effect of Murphy’s Law.  You see, when one thing goes wrong in the airline business, it negatively impacts several other things, and before you know it, you’re in a tailspin of suck that can last for days. 

To be fair, my latent hostility toward the Cleveland airport had been building for a couple of weeks. For starters, it’s conveniently located near absolutely nothing, making my average commute to work or my hotel once I arrive at least 30-40 minutes.  And that doesn’t factor in how long it takes to get a rental car at the airport.  That’s because the airport rental area is nowhere near the airport. You have to walk a mile from baggage claim to a shuttle, which wanders through a maze of construction sites and frontage roads with potholes the size of a Buick.  All in all, this process takes at least another 20 minutes. 

Supposedly, all of the “improvements” at the airport are for the 2016 Republican National Convention.  I have a feeling if there really are riots, it won’t be because of Donald Trump; it will be because the airport and its surroundings are so messed up.    

So, one Friday morning when I’m more than ready to get out of Cleveland for the weekend, I started with dropping off my rental car and doing the 20 minute commute.  Fortunately, once I arrived, the security point check-in did not take nearly as long as it appeared it would.  This is one area where I will compliment the Cleveland airport.  They have this screening process down fairly well. 

I had plenty to time to catch my 11 a.m. flight on United to Chicago.  Sure, last week’s flight was delayed an hour due to mechanical problems (the last thing you want to hear about the plane you’re about to get on!).  But things were going so smoothly today.  What could go wrong?

Did I mention I was booked on United Airlines?  I was about to get a lesson in their lack of reliability. 

The same flight – the same plane – that I had been delayed on last week had been delayed again.  Due to mechanical problems.  Again.  The departure time was pushed back to 12:30 p.m.

I sensed an uneasy pattern.  I really did not feel safe on this plane.  So, I asked a United representative what my options were and if they might want to bump me since the plane was already oversold (why is this even an allowable practice!?)  The next United flight to Chicago was full as well (I should have booked that one long ago, but I was leery about a 45-minute connection at O’Hare), but a nice, patient woman at the gate counter booked what I was told was a “contingency ticket” on an American Airlines flight at 6:10 p.m. to Chicago, then the last flight from there back to Springfield.  She even called American before booking to confirm they had one seat left for me.  So, if my scheduled flight got further delayed or cancelled, I was supposed to have a back-up plan.   

Then, miraculously, it seemed, an announcement came.  The plane was fixed after being worked on all morning.  It was headed to the gate.  By noon, we were boarding.

Not so fast …

After 30 minutes in the plane, the pilot announced the plane had not passed their tests for takeoff.  We exited the plane and were back to square one.  The newest estimated departure time:  4 p.m.

I want to be clear – I applaud the pilot and his crew for making a very difficult call, especially knowing it was about to ruin the day of more than 100 passengers, most of whom were certain to now miss their connecting flights.  I’d much rather be alive and inconvenienced.  But I have to seriously question why United continued to allow this same plane in its fleet after repeated mechanical failures.  At what point does an airline realize it’s time to replace a broken plane?

After getting off the plane, I realized I had to set my contingency plan into action.  I jogged almost all the way back through the C concourse to get into a painfully long line at United Customer Service. I was probably about 20th in line, and it still took over an hour to get my turn.  I felt sorry for the other four-fifths of the passengers behind me.  People were in line calling United’s national help line.  They found out before the United employees in Cleveland that ur flight wasn’t leaving at 4 p.m. – it had been cancelled. 

As fate would have it, the same woman who gave me my “contingency ticket” waited on me. But as she tried to confirm my flight, I got an uneasy feeling.  The computer was telling her the seating assignments on the American flight were restricted. With more assurances I still had my seat, and my baggage had been transferred to the American flight, I rushed to the gate where my next flight was scheduled to depart. 

This was where I got introduced some of the rudest customer service people I had ever met in my life.  First, I was told they had no record of me being booked on the flight to Chicago.  Then, they told me United would have to assign a seat.  I told them United couldn’t assign a seat because they had restricted the assignments.  Then, they blamed United for not completing the ticket transfer properly.  And, I would have to wait my turn to see if they could still get me on the plane.  By this time, I was livid with both United and American Airlines and not sure who to believe anymore.  Clearly, these companies do not play well together. 

Eventually, they must have realized I wasn’t going anywhere (like I had anywhere I could go at this point), and I got a seat in the exit row.  With confirmation that I was on the last flight from Chicago to Springfield, Ill., on my phone app, at least I knew I’d be home by midnight. 

Unfortunately, my luggage didn’t make it back with me.  This is not the news you want to deal with when you’re literally the last passenger left at the airport at 11 p.m.   

Again, the blame game between United and American continued, as I quickly found out my luggage stayed with American Airlines at O’Hare.  United said American just needed to transfer the bag to them.  American said United never processed the bag to go all the way to Springfield.  I tend to believe American’s point, but after repeated requests for my bag, why wouldn’t American simply deliver the damn thing?  To add insult to injury, at one point United guaranteed my bag was going to be on a late afternoon flight to Springfield that Saturday.  It never arrived.  They simply assumed American would bring it over.  American obviously couldn’t be bothered.

That’s when I decided to explain in great detail (and great loudness) to a United customer service rep after waiting for my bag to be returned to United for more than 24 hours, there’s a huge difference between requesting my bag and actually physically retrieving my bag.

So, someone working United baggage at O’Hare must have eventually got off his ass and got my luggage on the first plane to Springfield Sunday morning.  I picked up my luggage at the Springfield airport almost 36 hours after I got home. 

By Sunday morning, 48 hours after being checked in at Cleveland, this traveler was even more sick and tired of United and American Airlines than I was.  

With all of this in mind, will someone explain to me why air travel is considered so damn quick and convenient?  Obviously, it’s the only sensible option when you need to get across the country in a day or are going overseas, but in this case I would have gotten home more quickly if  United had put me in a rental car.  And, I would have had my luggage with me when I got home.  It would have been a lot more relaxing, too.   

And you know what United offered me for all of my delays, headaches and lost luggage?  Nothing.  No vouchers for a future flight.  No refunds.  Not even a meal at the airport.  Just half-hearted apologies. 

My work requires me to travel, and often that involves air travel.  And when you’re starting from a smaller airport, your options are very limited.  So, I’m stuck with United and American Airlines.  But that doesn’t mean I’m not learning from their screw-ups.    

No comments:

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one week...